Biomarker test boosts prospects for Parkinson's prediction

A research team has developed a Parkinson's biomarker diagnostic test that is showing promise on its own and fueling momentum in a broader effort to tackle the disease and figure out what makes it tick.

The work branches off of the large-scale Parkinson's Progression Markers Initiative, a global study backed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research that began with great fanfare in May. And while more studies are necessary to validate the initial findings, the idea of developing a diagnostic that can spot early-stage Parkinson's is a tantalizing one. A test that can identify Parkinson's risk factors and early stage manifestations of the disease would open the door to new treatments that could stop or at least slow its advance.

"Biomarkers for Parkinson's disease such as these could help us diagnose patients earlier, and we've now shown that the simultaneous measurement of a variety of neurodegenerative disease proteins is valuable," study senior author Leslie Shaw said in a statement.

Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues developed a test based on the evaluation of the spinal fluid from 63 patients with early, untreated Parkinson's and 39 healthy patients. Five spinal fluid biomarkers came into play: amyloid beta, two different kinds of tau protein, alpha synuclein and the ratio of total tau to amyloid beta.

The researchers found that patients with Parkinson's had much lower concentrations of amyloid beta, tau and alpha synuclein. Also, patients with a drop in tau and alpha synuclein faced more problems, such as motor dysfunction. Also worth noting: Early Parkinson's patients with a drop in amyloid beta and tau in their spinal fluid appeared to develop the postural instability-gait disturbance-dominant motor type of the disease (PIGD) (think plenty of freezing, falling and walking). PIGD is the more severe form of Parkinson's, and it turns out the research team found lower levels of all the key biomarkers in patients' spinal fluid in this type versus other kinds of Parkinson's and also healthy controls.

This is an early finding, of course. And much more research will be required to measure the biomarker test's full merit. But the researchers are proceeding, and based on their work, they see it as feasible to achieve earlier diagnosis for a number of Parkinson's subsets. Through the Parkinson's Progression Markers Initiative, they are trying to build on their initial findings, and there's definitely more to come. For now, details of the initial finding are published in the journal JAMA Neurology.

- read the release
- here's the journal abstract
- read USA Today's take